I’m continuing in my preparations for preaching on John 4:1-42 in August. Last week I looked briefly at the authorship of John’s Gospel and its current popularity. This week I’ll look at the historical context in which the encounter between the Samaritan Woman and Jesus took place.
Who were the Samaritans?
Most people know about the Samaritans from the famous parable in Luke 10:25-37. This very example of the kindly stranger has inspired several movements to adopt the name (including Samaritan’s Purse, and a host of other organizations including suicide counselling, and welfare groups.
The origins of the Samaritans as a distinct ethnic group are murky, and subject to opposing claims from Jewish and Samaritan traditions. What is clear, however, is that the Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves as distinct races from the late 4th Century BC onwards. Their attitudes towards each other vacillated from tolerance to outright hostility. When it is believed that one’s membership of the Kingdom of God rests on one’s ancestry (contrary to the explicit message of the New Testament), the issue of breeding is paramount, so it is worth looking at these competing claims.
The Jewish perspective
From the Jewish perspective, the Samaritans were not considered as the rightful inheritors of the land. Effectively, the First Century Jews regarded them as illegal squatters. The Jews believed that when the Ten Tribes of the Northern Israelite Kingdom were exiled following the Assyrian conquest in 721BC, they were displaced by non-Israelite immigrants from Bablyon, Cutha, Avah, Emath and Sepharvaim. It was from these foreigners that the Samaritans were descended.
Thus, the Samaritans could not claim to be the Sons of Abraham by birth, which excluded them from the covenant that YHWH had wrought with the “true” Israel (see Genesis 12 and 15). The only way that the Samaritans could consider themselves to be a part of God’s Kingdom was to convert, which required regular attendance at the Temple in Jerusalem and all the rites of purification that went with it. This was unacceptable to the Samaritans, who had built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim, only for the Jews to destroy it under John Hyrcanus in 128BC.
It was an earlier historical event that cemented the divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. Around 175 to 163BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes proclaimed himself to be the living incarnation of the Greek god Zeus and threatened death to anyone who would not worship him as such. The Jews remained obstinate, but the Samaritans, eager to secure their own safety, repudiated all connection and kinship with the Jews. Their request was granted. This, I believe, gave the Samaritans the reputation for switching allegiances when it suited them. It is is a characteristic that is possibly alluded to in Jesus’ observation about the Samaritan Woman’s several husbands.
The Samaritan perspective
The Samaritans, unsurprisingly, disputed the Jewish version of events. They claimed that they were properly descended from Abraham, that they were the faithful keepers of the Torah, and it was their Jewish neighbors who were apostate. According to the Samaritan tradition, they were direct descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, and a remnant had survived the Assyrian conquest in situ (see 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:6 ). This claim to have been the faithful children of Abraham adds a certain pique to the Samaritan Woman’s reference to Jacob’s Well as “her” well in John 4:12.
The Jews, the Samaritans claimed, apostatized when Eli, the Priest (see 1 Chronicles 1:3 etc), left the Tabernacle on Mount Gerizim, to build a new Temple under his own rule at Shiloh. The Temple in Jerusalem, according to the Samaritans was an apostate temple, sustained by an illegitimate priesthood, and any attempt by the Jewish proselytizers to convert them to it was met with overt hostility.
Interestingly, the Samaritans had sustained their own patriarchal Priesthood until the 17th Century. In In 1624, the last Samaritan High Priest of the line of Eleazar son of Aaron died without issue, but descendants of Aaron's other son, Ithamar, remained and took over the office.
The Samaritan reaction to Jesus
I believe that it is likely that the Samaritans in general, and the Samaritan Woman in particular, would have initially regarded Jesus as one of the Jewish proselytizers, or at least a Jewish supporter (Jesus was recognizably Jewish, and a religious one at that). This would explain the hostile reception given to Jesus in Luke 9:51-53. It is only when the Samaritan Woman realizes that conversion to the Jerusalem Temple is not on Jesus’ agenda that her attitude towards him begins to soften.
According to Wikipedia, the population of ethnic Samaritans had dwindled to 712 individuals in 2007, comprising just four families living on Mount Gerizim and in Tel Aviv. Genetic studies indicate that modern Samaritans share a common ancestry with modern Jews, and the study’s authors suggest that a subgroup of the Israelites remained in the Land of Israel that "married Assyrian and female exiles relocated from other conquered lands, which was a typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities”.
So, it appears to me that both the Samaritan and Jewish traditions can be justified, based on the historical and genetic evidence, though both draw irreconcilably opposing inferences from it. It all rests on what one considers to be a “true” Israelite, or what constitutes a “true” worshipper.
As we shall see, Jesus cuts right through these issues by changing the paradigm entirely.